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Microadventure Series : Cemetery Hiking


#17hike of my 52 Hike Challenge

Trail/Park/Location: Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, Minneapolis, MN

The beauty of challenging yourself to look at the world in a new way is that you might discover something delightful and unexpected that sits right in front of you. When I was looking for inspiration for this series I’ve been getting a bunch of great suggestions from my hiking community. One that hadn’t crossed my mind was visiting a cemetery for one of my urban hikes. A fellow member of Women Who Hike mentioned that when she’s looking to get away from the crowd, especially for us city dwellers, that cemeteries can be a respite from the hustle.

Minneapolis has a few really amazing cemeteries that are located near our lakes and offer both the quiet and views of nature that we are all longing for right now. They provide a sense of reverence for the preciousness of life. For me, right now that sounded really comforting.

The additional draw for me is that I’ve been trying to make the getting to my hike locations part of the hike. Living in the city I’m trading dirt for pavement which is a trade I can live with for now. Hiking to a cemetery landed me squarely within the gates of Minneapolis’s oldest cemetery – Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery. I’ve lived not far from this place for more than 15 years, Scouts in the BSA Troop I volunteer with have participated in service projects at the cemetery, but I’d never visited myself.

My route would take me past a Minneapolis mural, a water fountain as art piece outside the Midtown YMCA and past a host of new buildings at the hardscrabble intersection of Highway 55 and Lake Street East. Its a place that most people hurry by, bordered by two busy streets, a strip mall and a bunch of warehouse buildings. The sulfur smells from a neighboring foundry and the incessent sound of passing traffic permeate the neighborhood. It’s not as grand looking as Lakewood Cemetery near Bde Maka Ska (fka. Lake Calhoun). What it is though is the final resting place for more than 27,000 people, many who figured in the beginnings of Minneapolis and representing a broad swath of cultural backgrounds.

The cemetery was placed on the National Historic Register in 2002, is maintained by the City of Minneapolis and gets support from the Friends of the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery. Originally known as Layman’s Cemetery, it opened in 1853. As I entered the main gate off Cedar Avenue, I turned left and began what would be a zig-zagging walk through the burial plots. The ground was uneven. Headstones are barely readable in some cases. There are vast swaths of grass where no headstone exists and others where the ground has sunk slowly engulfing the flat stones. I found the variety of markers fascinating, knowing that I’d be heading online when I got home to learn more about the history of this place.

The place, because of its location, didn’t offer the peacefulness in the way that most parks. But as I wandered I had plenty of time to contemplate the idea of the permanence we seem to seek as humans. The need to leave our mark. I imagined, as I have on my many hikes over the past few years, what the family who selected this site would have seen in 1853. Could they have imagined that this place, which was likely very peaceful in 1853, would be bordered by a city rushing by? What was the view from the top of the circle on the one road into and out of the plots? Most assuredly it wasn’t a strip mall. I’d have to do more digging, but I also assumed, that this location was on the outskirts of Minneapolis into at least the early 1900s. Knowing my home was built in that time period would make sense.

Deeper Meaning from Movement

As I got further into my hike, I pondered deeper questions about the fragility of life. I debated the importance of having a place of burial and my own relationship with burial. I may not have come to any conclusions, but it was interesting to be aware of the thoughts. I discovered some unexpected and more recent remnants of death too. A crow skull and, a bit further along a recently killed crow. With all the news of animals reappearing in places that are normally overrun with people, it reminded me that the city has hidden animals. Sadly I didn’t see the resident deer that I’ve since read about.

The movement of hiking is one of the ways that I process through my perceptions and beliefs. I’ve written about it before. I think there is tremendous opportunity for self discovery in hiking and it’s why I’m ok with hiking by myself. Being alone with your thoughts offers the opportunity to get to know yourself and your relationship to the world in a way that hiking with someone else doesn’t.

A Steward of the Earth

My biggest disappointment, though not surprise, was the incredible volume of trash that makes its way into the local neighborhood. The sidewalks wrapping the fence line are lined with it. It invariably blows in. But there is an equal measure of it that is obviously brought in and left behind. I’d planned for this too, bringing a large trash bag from a stewardship event last fall and got to work as I weaved across the grounds.

While the effort felt futile, I always think about the Mississippi River just a little over a mile down the road and try to make a dent in what will, invariably be blown by the wind or carried in the a summer storm into our storm drains and into the river. Its a never ending amount of work in the city. I don’t ever really know if what I am doing matters. But it feels right and so I keep suiting up with my gloves, grabber and a bag. I keep hoping that in doing so, someone might see me and make a change to not drop that piece of trash or pick up some themselves. In this case it also offered me a brief chance to talk with the lone groundskeeper as he gently let me know it was time to close the gates.

Keeping the Micro Adventures Going

This adventure was one that I was incredibly grateful to be able to do. And as morbid as it might seem, I’d challenge you to take another look at the cemetery near your home. Even if you don’t know anyone buried there its a wonderful way to see how we are all really part of something much larger. Part of humanity. Part of the earth. Hiking always brings that home to me – no matter where I hike. May it do the same for you!

Next Post Preview: Take a photo safari right in your own neighborhood.


References for the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery

If I’ve missed something that would be a helpful resource, please let me know in the comments.

Minnesota Historical Society – a historical look at the cemetery which includes the family that opened the cemetery, the people buried in it and the events that shaped the city up until it was closed to burials in 1919.

Friends of the Cemetery – this website offers a searchable database of information related to those buried in the cemetery

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